The new world of “pop-ups”
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH
Q: What do New York-style pizzas and handcrafted burgers have in common?
A: Both are now served at pop-up restaurants, a new trend in the local dining scene.
Essentially mini-restaurants that operate out of otherwise occupied spaces, pop-ups offer a relatively safe environment for aspiring restaurateurs to experiment without incurring the high start-up costs and risks associated with a full-scale restaurant launch. The menus are usually short and tightly focused, and social media takes the place of conventional advertising in their promotion.
Truth be told, the ones here are a bit different from those elsewhere. Ours tend not to move around and are not quite as super-secret hush-hush as ones in New York or Los Angeles. While New York hipsters might sneer, ours nevertheless offer a fun alternative to traditional spaces along with the requisite tasty fare.
Deep in Bywater, down where North Rampart Street feels more like a side street than a major thoroughfare, a wanderer from the Saturn Bar might accidentally stumble across Pizza Delicious, which slices up some of the best pies in town.
Born of a craving, co-owners Michael Friedman and Greg Augarten missed this comfort food while attending Tulane University. “Greg is from Queens, and I’m from Long Island,” says Friedman. “As roommates we often talked about pizza from home and how there wasn’t anything down here that came close.” Fond of cooking, one day they tried making pizza on a whim and it ended up tasting – to their surprise – pretty good.
The more they talked about it, the more they realized there would be a market for it. And while they felt it would sell, they were unsure of just how to make it happen. Then they stumbled across the perfect space: a bakery with an old deck oven and a Hobart mixer, perfect for dough. “We had no idea about how to run a restaurant,” he recalls.
“We just made a big list of things to do and went for it. We figured since the overhead was super-low, if this bombed at least we would know how to make pizza and would therefore be happy.”
Pizza Delicious opened on the heels of last year’s Mardi Gras and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, turning out pies to order on Sunday nights (recently expanded to include Thursdays). Blink and you’ll miss it – it’s basically a pick-up window along the side of the building, just off the street with a sign. They deliver on bike to a limited area and also sell by the slice. Most customers, however, phone in their order for pick-up.
How does the pizza taste? Delicious. The crust is excellent, it’s thin and crisp on the bottom, dusted with flour and perfect for folding. (“Nailing the dough was the biggest challenge. We didn’t even start on making our own sauce until we had gotten that done.”) The homemade sauce has a touch of heat to it and is spread thinly, and the cheese is moderately applied as well. For toppings, they source locally when they can, such as broccoli rabe from Hollygrove Market and Farm. They make their own meatballs, as well as their own sausage from scratch using Berkshire pork. For toppings they hew to the New York Italian-style aesthetic, not going much for crazy-heavy application. Try the garlic knots, perfect for post-pickup snacking on the drive home.
Nowadays they’re limited only by oven capacity, turning out about 22 pizzas per hour from a refurbished triple-deck oven. Their booking system works like a restaurant book, where callers are assigned a time slot on a first-available basis. It is promoted exclusively through social media via Facebook, Twitter and Blogspot. “It is more of a strategy now than it was when we got going,” Friedman says. “Back then, it was just how we knew to get in touch with people.” The word is out now though, so call ahead, otherwise you might be waiting a long time.
Uptown on Magazine Street, each Sunday night Slim Goodies transforms into MVB (short for Most Valuable Burger). Owned and operated by a consortium of locals that includes established restaurateurs (Joel Dondis), accomplished chefs (Larkin Selman and Evan Benson), enthusiastic foodies (Rene Louapre and Peter Thriffiley of “Blackened Out,” the über-popular local food blog) and the uncategorizable “X-Factor” (Chef Hardie McDonald).
Inspired in part by a hamburger joint Dondis grew up with in Lake Charles, the partners were initially all too busy with their main gigs to start a full-on restaurant. “We decided to do the one-night-a-week thing at Slims to test the waters,” Louapre recalls. Their idea took off from the start, and business has been booming since.
Louapre helps with the front, serving as a de facto manager, as well as handling promotion. Like Pizza Delicious, MVB relies exclusively on social media for marketing and the platform has served it well. “We announced its launch via Twitter. The entire thing is basically built on Twitter and Facebook. That is how we announce our specials, how we get feedback and how we interact with our customers,” says Louapre.
The menu is short but sweet: burgers, shakes and fries. It starts with the patties – the burgers are a mix of 50 percent chuck and 50 percent brisket, broken down from primals and ground in-house. The buns are sourced from Maple Street Patisserie, and the gelato for the shakes comes from Sucré. “We make our own mayonnaise and ketchup as well,” Louapre adds.
They also run a weekly special. Catchy ones include “Get in My Portobelly,” topped with grilled portobellos, leeks, goat cheese and artichoke-lemon aioli, and – over Carnival – the “Boeuf Gras,” topped with seared foie gras, port-roasted shallots and demi-glace.
For Louapre, the experience has been both fun and stressful: Fun because he’s following a passion and stressful because they want to take it to the next level with a full-time restaurant. “After the first couple weeks we realized we had something special. We’ve started to think of ourselves more as a restaurant-in-training than a pop-up. But we’re having fun with it. Actually, we asked ourselves that question last night – are we all still having fun? And the answer was a resounding ‘yes.’”